Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

To contact me about organizing, email me at

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Sunday, August 31, 2014


Let me try once more to make myself clear.  I think Michael Sandel is a bright, lively, interesting person and, I suspect, a terrific lecturer.  In the context of the Harvard community, he is one of the good guys.  What I was trying to explain, with my references to McLuhan and [facetiously] to Woody Allen, is that even someone like that can be defeated by the form of his presentation, so that what would in another setting be effective teaching becomes a form of performance, of entertainment, and hence undercuts whatever he is trying to accomplish as a teacher.  I did not think I needed to spell that out so flat-footedly.  I thought I could communicate it wittily, by indirection.  But it would appear that I was wrong.

It would not surprise me to learn that Jonathan Swift had a similar problem.  [Sigh.  There I go again.]


I have now received, read, and uploaded to Part Two of William Polk's important historical essay on Israel and the Palestinians.  I urge all of you most strongly to take the time to read it.  I myself had not realized until now how central a role Bill himself played in the unfolding of those events.

The essay can be found under the title "Polk Part Two."


Regular readers of this blog are familiar with my practice of taking a daily early morning walk, during which, in the pre-dawn quiet, I meditate on this and that, often writing a blog post in my head before later transcribing it here.  This morning, I found myself reflecting on my exchange with Professor Tony Couture on the possibility of podcasting my Marx lectures next semester.  Tony [if I may be so informal] included a link to an on-line course on Justice taught at Harvard by the well-known political philosopher Michael Sandel.  The course is astonishingly successful, enrolling more than one thousand students each time it is taught.  Sandel, who is a Professor in Harvard's Government Department, first came to prominence with a book criticizing the methodologically individualist presuppositions of Rawls' A Theory of Justice.  In his comment, Tony noted the rather lavish production values of the video of the Sandel lectures.  I decided to take a look, and picked the lecture on Kant's ethical theory, for which the students are apparently asked to read the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.  I made it through two and a half minutes of the lecture, which, by the way, was held in Sanders Theater, and then clicked off, deeply offended.

On my walk, I began to think about what had bothered me so much.  Lord knows, it wasn't the subject matter.  Getting a thousand Harvard undergraduates to read the Groundwork has got to be a good thing, right?  Sandel's opening remarks were a little inaccurate, but not more than what one would expect at that level.  [The First Critique was not the first thing Kant published, but only Kant scholars like me would quibble.]  Was I merely envious of this good-looking man in the really good-looking suit who was so obviously adored by more than a thousand good-looking, bright, and probably rich young men and women? 

I found myself thinking of Marshal McLuhan's old mantra that the medium is the message.  McLuhan's claim, which echoes Aristotle's insistence on the primacy of form over matter, is that the form in which ideas are presented inevitably and unavoidably shapes the content of those ideas, regardless of the intentions of their author.  I recalled the two and a half minutes I had watched of the video.  When Sandel made a humorous remark about the years Kant spent as an unsalaried privatdozent, paid according to the numbers of students he enrolled, the camera cut to the audience and focused on an attractive young woman who laughed and began to applaud. 

And then it hit me.  Sandel was doing stand-up.  His subject might be justice.  The topic of the day might be Immanuel Kant.  But he was doing a stand-up comedy routine that he might as easily offer in a Cambridge coffee house.  The form of his presentation had taken control of the content.  The medium is the message.  And the message is:  This is fun, this is entertainment, albeit the sort of refined entertainment that one has every right to expect at a classy and expensive place like Harvard.

And then, my mind being what it is, I recalled the Whore of Mensa.  There may be some of you, especially among my younger readers, who are unfamiliar with the Whore of Mensa.  Even though I am fond of quoting the King James version of the Bible, this is not, as you might imagine, an invocation of Revelations.  The Whore of Mensa is a short story by Woody Allen, published just forty  years ago in The New Yorker.  It tells the sad tale of a man, hiding behind the pseudonym "Flossie," who has started a Call Girl service.  He hires young women from elite women's colleges who, for a fee, will meet you in a motel and talk to you for an hour about Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Kant.

It would be cruel, I think, to describe Michael Sandel as a Whore of Mensa, but if the bustier fits.


Everyone around the world, quite rightly, has commented on the demented insanity of taking a nine year old girl out to a shooting range for a little fun time with an Uzi.  I should simply like to add a thought that has not, to my knowledge, yet received much attention.  That poor child will have to live for the rest of her life with the knowledge that she killed someone, regardless of how often she is told, correctly, that it is not her fault. 

I will confess, somewhat ashamedly, that I am not able to feel truly sorry for the shooting instructor whose recklessness cost him his own life.   I know nothing at all about him, save that he put a loaded submachine gun in fully automatic mode in the hands of a child.  It is no good blaming capitalism, or whatever.  There is not another "advanced" industrial nation in the world that would allow such a thing.  There is something uniquely sick about America, among all the other imperial capitalist states.  It is entirely of a piece with the fact that we incarcerate a vastly larger proportion of our population -- of course disproportionally of color -- than any other capitalist country.  And it cannot possibly be irrelevant that a higher proportion of Americans attend religious services regularly.


Just when I found out that I am very big in Ukraine [second most frequent country from which page views pop up on my Formal Methods blog], Vladimir Putin is threatening to make it part of Russia, where I am toast.  I can't seem to get a break.

Saturday, August 30, 2014


I receive unsolicited phone calls of a non-political nature every day -- usually at what normal people consider the dinner hour, which is just about when Susie and I are going to bed.  Ordinarily I hang up or yell at the telephone, but the evening before last I actually lingered long enough to hear an offer from Time Warner Cable, my feckless Internet/cable/telephone provider.  It was for a special one year discounted rate for something called EPIX, which was promised to give me a host of movies and other shows for only $4.99 a month.  I thought, "What the hell," and told the lady to hook me up.  Half an hour later, channels 594-599 were activated, and I began watching what was offered.  Pretty good stuff for the price, by the way.

This afternoon, Susie and I stumbled on and watched all the way through Star Trek: The Motion Picture [1979] with the entire original TV cast.  I was a devoted Star Trek viewer from 1966 to 1968, and then an equally devoted viewer of Star Trek:  The Next Generation, Star Trek:  Deep Space Nine, and even the rather weaker Star Trek: Voyager, along with a number of the Star Trek movies [such as Wrath of Khan with the redoubtable but somewhat long in the tooth Ricardo Montalbán.]

Star Trek: The Motion Picture is not exactly a great movie, as those of you who have seen it will attest, but it affected me deeply nonetheless.  I had forgotten how much more hopeful a time that was.  Despite all the terrible events -- the assassinations of Martin and Malcolm and Bobby -- and the horror of the Viet Nam War, there was a spirit of genuine rebellion in the country.  It was possible to believe that America was decisively embarked on a progressive journey to a new and better nation.  As I watched the closing scenes of the movie, I teared up at the thought of what then seemed possible and what has since been lost.  I know, I know, a hard-eyed Marxist analysis would have put paid to those sentiments even then.  But we do not live by economic analysis alone, and it is necessary to have hope, even irrational hope [as Herbert Marcuse so brilliantly explained in One-Dimensional Man], if we are to tap into the deep pre-conscious wells of psychic energy required to make even marginal changes in the real world.

Just as the movies of the Thirties, despite their fascination with the doings of the toffs in their evening dresses and tails, breathe with a faith in working-class men and women [who are not compulsively misdescribed as "middle class"], so there are movies from the Sixties and Seventies that capture that spirit of resistance to the old order and hope for a new.

I really do not think I am just an old man saying "It was better when I was young."

Friday, August 29, 2014


It seems that I must consult the Office of University Counsel before recording my Marx course next Spring for podcasting.  As a guest of the Department, I feel an obligation to behave in a way that does not embarrass them, so I shall of course comply.  I will let you know whether the course will be available to the world for listening.


After the United States, the country now producing the most visits to this blog is Ukraine, according to Google.  More than the United Kingdom!  I hesitate to say this, but I am beginning to develop doubts about Google.




Philosophy 454

Karl Marx's Critique of Capitalism

Instructor:  Professor Robert Paul Wolff

Wednesdays, 1:00 - 3:30 p.m.

Caldwell Hall


An integrated examination of the historical, economic, sociological, political, and psychological theories of Karl Marx, with attention to the literary dimensions of his greatest work, CAPITAL.


Open to graduate students and advanced

undergraduates without prerequisites.

Thursday, August 28, 2014


Even those of you who do not keep tabs on French affairs may have seen reports that President Franҫois Hollande's government has undergone a bouleversement.  Briefly, three of the most left-wing of his ministers, who have been persistently critical of his austerity economic policies, are out and safe loyalists are replacing them.  You can see Paul Krugman's account of the matter, with some very interesting and rather surprising statistics, on his blog.   Needless to say, I am very distressed.  In my artless Japanese way [to quote a phrase from The Mikado], I took it as a very good thing when the Socialists swept to power in France.  Although my French friends warned me that Hollande was hardly a fire-breather, I was intoxicated by the experience of owning property in a country with a government that wrapped itself in the Red Flag.  I even found myself living in an arrondissement that went for the Socialists, though not by as much as the working class districts farther from the center of Old Paris.  So it has been hard for me to watch the slow disintegration of my hopes and dreams as Hollande  has thrown in his lot with Angela Merkel and the dastardly German austeriocrats.

Then I thought, "What would my reliably radical readers [the three R's] say about my distress at Hollande's failure even to follow the policy proposals of the more adept defenders of capitalism, such as Krugman, who of course have been beating up on the proponents of austerity in Europe and America for years?"  Would they tell me that I should have known better?  And that in turn brought me back to the old question that has haunted socialists like a spectre for a hundred and fifty years:  Will the long awaited transition to Socialism, deo volente, come quietly through evolution or violently by way of revolution?

Marx tells two stories, and though they are not at all incompatible with one another, they prepare us in quite different ways for possible futures.  The first story is found in the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, a work Marx published in 1859 during the time when he was writing Capital.  The crucial passage from the Preface, which has been many times quoted, is as follows:  "No social order ever disappears before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have been developed; and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself." 

This passage was obviously shaped by Marx's study of the centuries-long process by which nascent mercantile was born within late feudal Europe and grew slowly until its explosion into full scale industrial capitalism, first in England in the late eighteenth century, then in France, and finally in Germany and other parts of Europe as well as in the Americas.  Marx had nothing but scorn for the so-called Utopian Socialists who sat at their writing desks planning ideal socialist communities without considering by what steps such fantasies might be realized.  My essay, "The Future of Socialism," to which I periodically refer [see] is an attempt to think through precisely the processes within the womb of capitalism that can be construed as preparing the way for the possibility of socialism.

Marx's second story is to be found both in the very early Communist Manifesto and in the pages of Capital, where he describes in some detail the internal "contradictions" of capitalism that are leading rapidly and inexorably to a revolutionary transition from capitalism to socialism.  To summarize a complex and nuanced story in a sentence, Marx thinks that the same internal processes of unchecked capitalist competition that produce ever more violent economic booms and busts also, albeit quite unintentionally on the part of the capitalists, generate increasingly successful efforts within the working class to organize and mobilize to combat the devastation wrought by capitalist competition.  As a consequence of these two internal tendencies within capitalism, at about the time when the capitalists manage to wreck their own system in a world-wide economic crash, a mobilized and energized international working class movement, that has achieved a high level of self-consciousness [and hence is, as the old saying has it, a class for itself as well as in itself], will stand ready to rise up, overthrow the political order that protects capitalism, and establish a new socialist order.  [God, how I love to write those words!  It is like repeating the stories I read as a boy of ogres and princes and the overthrowing of evil step-fathers.]

Neither the first story nor the second offers much in the way of hope for socialist wannebes, I am afraid.  I have identified in my essay developments within capitalism at the microeconomic level that one can plausibly construe as a new order growing in the womb of the old.  And recent events certainly suggest on the macroeconomic level that capitalism is trapped in a sequence of crises that ought to provide openings for radical restructurings, whether violent or not.  But there is very little evidence I can see of the development of an organized national or international working class movement poised to seize the day.  I have tried in my essay to identify the principal reasons for the failure of this movement to emerge.

What to do?  I really do not know.  I hardly think writing about these matters on a blog will make much of a contribution, but then, what will?  For a variety of reasons, the era of the labor union seems to be behind us, at least for those not in the public sector.

Does anyone have a suggestion?


After my mean-spirited snark at the UMass e-mail system, my old friend and former colleague Bruce Aune [who of course also uses UMass e-mail] wrote to tell me that all I need do is enter control-a and all of the messages in the spam file are highlighted.  Pressing the delete key gets rid of them all.

My humble apologies to the UMass Office of Information Technology, or OIT, as we call it.  My bad.


One of my computer rituals is the periodic deletion of spam.  My rather primitive e-mail program, courtesy of the University of Massachusetts [the one post-retirement benefit] does not allow me to delete the entire collection with one series of key strokes, so I must go through them tediously, deleting one page at a time.  A typical several days' collection runs to seven or eight pages.

Some while ago, while performing this chore, I noticed an e-mail message I actually wanted lodged between greetings from Nigerians who needed my help to extract several million dollars from a frozen bank account, so now I run my eye quickly down each page before I delete, just to be sure there is nothing I need look at.  As a result, I keep a running tab on what is hot in spam.

The Nigerians, as I say, are always with us.  Yesterday, there were also half a dozen beautiful Russian women looking for husbands.  And of course there are the scams that begin "My dear," which I assume are variations on the Nigerian millions.  Since spammers are the most liberated and gender-neutral of all those who inhabit the cloud, I receive regular offers to enhance the size of both my breasts and my penis, as well as offers of cut-rate drugs from Canada guaranteed to correct erectile dysfunction and vaginal dryness.  And of course there are the urgent messages ostensibly from banks, credit card companies, and PayPal, warning me of the dangers of identity theft and asking me for my name, address, credit card number, and password so that they can protect me.  All of these messages, and many more, I view with tolerance or even a wry enjoyment.  So many people out there so determined to separate me from my money, and so imaginative in their approaches.  But there is one regular occupant of my spam file that fills me with righteous anger, one message that I take as a direct and unforgivable insult.  That is the offer of an on-line doctorate.

Do they have no idea whom they are talking to?  Does my entire life have no meaning?  Could these unprincipled rascals not take the brief moment it would have cost them to ascertain that I have an EARNED doctorate from a respectable institution?

As the late great Rodney Dangerfield would have said, I don't get no respect.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014


For reasons that I cannot now reconstruct, a few moments ago the phrase "Sperner's Lemma" popped into my head.  Thirty-nine years ago, while working on the lectures I gave in a graduate course called "The Use and Abuse of Formal Methods in Political Philosophy" [out of which came my book on Rawls and my article on Nozick, as well as my tutorial on a blog two years ago devoted to the subject], I undertook to master and then to teach a formal proof of the Fundamental Theorem of Game Theory, due to John van Neumann, which states that every two person zero sum game with mixed strategies has a solution.  The key move in that proof, at least in the form in which it is given in Luce and Raiffa's Games and Decisions, is an appeal to the famous Fixed Point Theorem of L. E. J. Brouwer.  [The proof given by Luce and Raiffa may actually be due to Nash.  I am not sure now.]  Back then, I located and mastered a proof of the fixed point theorem in a math book [there are many such proofs] which used a theorem due to Kakutani, in the course of which there is an appeal to Sperner's Lemma.   I actually expounded the entire proof of von Neumann's theorem, with the proof of the Fixed Point Theorem, in my course.  Lord knows what the students made of it all.

My curiosity piqued by the idle thought, I did what any normal red-blooded American boy would do: I looked on Wikipedia.  There, sure enough, was a lovely article about the Fixed Point Theorem and another even lovelier article about Sperner's Lemma.   Fully understanding what I found in those two articles is, alas, beyond me.  Which got me thinking, as I often have, that one of the many things I regret is that I did not study more math.  That and my embarrassing inability to master foreign languages are my two intellectual deficits, I feel [others, of course, may have a longer list of my failings.]

As I noted on this blog some long while ago, My grandniece Emily is now making a serious study of Mathematics, a fact that gives me enormous vicarious pleasure.  Go Emily!


Two years ago, I wrote and published seriatim a book-length tutorial on Formal Methods in Political Philosophy, complete with quite technical explications of rational choice theory, collective choice theory, and Game Theory.  It has drawn almost 36,000 page views lifetime, which, considering the subject matter, is astonishing.  Every so often I check in to see whether anyone is reading it, and there are always ten or twelve page views a day.  Suddenly, yesterday, there were sixty-seven, which mystified me, until I realized that this is the beginning of the Fall semester around the country and someone, somewhere, has assigned the blog to his or her students. 

The Cloud is wonderful.  Since formal proofs do not go out of fashion, I imagine the tutorial will live on forever, available to anyone who wants an introduction to that fascinating stuff.


1.  The global village:  At about 5:45 a.m., I lost my Internet connection.  At 5:15, when I got up, it was fine, and I even exchanged an email with someone.  Then it disappeared.  I did what I have been schooled to do -- I unplugged my router, waited thirty seconds, and plugged it back in -- no good.  I restarted my computer.  Also no good.  I checked the TV and telephone landline, which come in a package with the Internet from Time Warner Cable, and they were fine.  I tried to get on the Internet with my cell phone -- no luck.  So I went for my early morning walk, figuring that I might have to drive down the street to the TWC office and arrange for a service call.  I figured I could get on my blog at the Starbuck's across the street for long enough to post a notice that I had been temporarily silenced.  When I came back from my walk and had made the bed, showered, and dressed, I decided to try it one more time before having breakfast.  Bingo.  I was back.  I shrugged my shoulders, figured it was some local glitch, and went on surfing.

Little did I know.  When I surfed over to the Huffington Post a few minutes ago, I found the following headline:  "Time Warner Cable is Down Around the Country.  Twitter Reacts Accordingly."

I found it comforting to discover that my little problem was being shared by scores of millions of Americans, if not more.  It almost made be wish I did Twitter.  Well, maybe not.

2.  One-upped:  I told my duet partner yesterday, when we were playing Mozart's K423, that my wife and I have taken to feeding the Muscovy Duck that has suddenly and unaccountably shown up at the pond near Meadowmont Village.  [It is a male, but I call him Sonia, in honor of Peter and the Wolf.]  She replied that she and her husband have half a dozen deer or more who come regularly to their back yard and whom they feed with bags of corn.  The does and their fawns come and feed and then lie down for a while quite near their back door.  Sigh.  There is always someone with a better story.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014


Two recent experiences have brought me back to a somewhat irrational belief I have long held, that what great classical musicians do is magical, incomprehensible, and immensely admirable, whereas what I do is pedestrian and really not very difficult at all.  On Sunday, Susie and I, desperate for a movie to see, went to If I Stay, a forgettable film about a teen-age girl who plays the cello.  At one point, the actress is seen playing quite magnificently during a Juilliard audition [apparently, even though she studied cello for seven months to prepare for the role, in the end they digitally grafted her head onto the body of a real cellist -- an operation performed, I take it, without benefit of anaesthesia.]  Then, a few moments ago, as part of my preparation for playing Mozart's violin/viola duet K423 this afternoon with my fellow amateur, Susan Strobel, I went to YouTube and listened to David and Igor Oistrakh performing the piece while I followed along with the viola part on my lap.  My purpose in this exercise of self-flagellation was to find out what tempo they take the Adagio at, but I listened to the entire duet.  Needless to say, they play it beautifully.  The Adagio, by the way, is taken very slowly, with plenty of room to breathe, musically speaking.  Even the runs of sixteenth notes are allowed their full space.  I would not have given myself that much room, left to my own devices, so it is a good thing I listened to the Oistrakhs.

I studied the viola for eight years [in my middle sixties and early seventies] with the co-principal violist of the Springfield MA symphony, taking an hour and a half lesson a week and practicing at least an hour a day.  My teacher is a fine professional violist who is, it goes without saying, in an entirely different world from me when it comes to playing the viola.  Over time, it became clear to me that she views the playing of the viola as, in a manner of speaking, an assemblage of techniques that one can master with sufficient time and effort -- a smooth bow arm, a vibrato [which I have never conquered], double stops [which I did master, to my delight and astonishment], legato, staccato, spiccato, playing in the higher positions, and of course, that old stand-by, playing in tune.  [When I was a boy, studying the violin, I thought that playing in tune was something you had to be born with, like naturally curly hair.  Only as I approached my dotage did I discover one can actually learn to play in tune by listening to oneself and adjusting the position of one's fingers on the strings.  Pianists have it easy.  It is impossible to play the piano out of tune.]

Now, one can of course master all of this and still not be a Yo-Yo Ma or David Oistrakh or Pinchas Zuckerman.  But one can, in fact, with enough time and effort and discipline learn to play well enough to, let us say, earn a chair at the back of the viola section of a decent regional professional orchestra, which, by the way, is actually a very high standard these days.

My teacher, for her part, viewed my academic accomplishments with the greatest respect, even though in her studio I was the patzer and she the maîtresse.  I suspect that teaching Philosophy and writing serious books seemed as far beyond her as performing a Mozart duet creditably and beautifully seem to me.  I recall one year she was expressing anxiety about having to make some welcoming remarks to the gathering of her students and their families at their annual little  recital.  She was terrified of getting up in front of an audience, even that audience, and speaking -- something I had been doing many times a week for my entire adult life.  Meanwhile, I was going to my doctor for an Inderal prescription to control my heartbeat and shaking when I rose to play my little "piece."[[Inderal is a beta blocker, prescribed for serious heart problems, and I doubted my doctor would even consider giving me a prescription for so trivial a reason, but when I asked him, he agreed without hesitation, telling me that his wife, who was a professional musician, took it before every concert.]

Well, the obvious and natural response to all of this is to say, Yes, yes, each of us has the illusion that what other people do is marvelous and what we do is run-of-the-mill.  But I do not really believe it is an illusion.  I simply cannot escape from the conviction that the great concert violinists and violists, the great string quartet players, the great pianists are gods who have condescended to spend their lives among mortals rather than in Valhalla where they rightfully belong.

Now I must return to K423 and decide how close I can come without disaster to the tempo at which the Oistrakhs took the concluding Rondo.

Monday, August 25, 2014


Today, as I was on my way to Carrboro to get some good bread, I passed a funny looking little car that had, on its roof, a tall, odd object on a tripod -- a sort of camera, it seemed.  On the side of the car I read "GoogleMaps."  So I think that in a little while, when Google has had time to load the pictures taken by the car onto its system, I may be immortalized as the grey Toyota Camry driving south on West Barbee Chapel Road in Chapel Hill, NC!  Of such things as these is a legend built.


Here is the course I shall be teaching at UNC Chapel Hill in the Spring Semester.  It appears that I shall be able to record it and post the recording of each class on this blog.  [Nothing is certain, of course, but at least the technical side of things is manageable.]

Philosophy 4__
                            Karl Marx's Critique of Capitalism

Instructor:  Professor Robert Paul Wolff
Course Description:  

Karl Marx's great work, Capital, is both the consummation of the century-long tradition of Classical Political Economy of Adam Smith and David Ricardo and a powerful critique of the economic system we know as capitalism.  It is at one and the same time a great work of economic theory, a great work of historical sociology, a great work of social philosophy, and a brilliantly written literary masterpiece.  It is also the single most politically influential work ever written by a philosopher.

In this course we will engage with all of these aspects of the work and weave them into a single integrated interpretation of the text, drawing on Philosophy, History, Sociology, Literary Criticism, and on the mathematical reinterpretation of Marx's economic theories carried out in the twentieth century by a world-wide array of mathematical economists.

There are no formal prerequisites for this course, beyond what is now generally considered high school algebra, but the discussion will be carried on at a sophisticated level of theoretical rigor for which students should be prepared.  It should go without saying that students of every political or ideological persuasion are welcome.

Written work will consist of a number of short problem sets and exercises, followed by a substantial research paper due on the day set by the University for the final examination.

The Instructor has limited the course to twenty enrolled students, but auditors will be welcome


Perhaps because I spent fifty years in the classroom, I think of this blog as an open-ended continuing class, with no registration limits, no prerequisites, no constraints on subject matter,  and of course, no exams or grades.  It calls to mind the great line from one of the songs in Guys and Dolls, sung by Nathan Detroit:  "It's the oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York."

Thinking of the blog in this way has many advantages, but there is one downside, I find.  It makes me feel that I ought to be able to answer any question posed by one of the "students," especially when it is asked by someone who actually was my student in real life.  Andrew Blais asks several questions provoked by my lengthy post on the relationship between Kant's First Critique teaching and the theses of his moral philosophy.  Now, Andrew really was my student, back in the days when I was still a Professor of Philosophy.  I directed his fine doctoral dissertation, which then became a very good book.  So when he asks me about Plato and possible worlds and one thing and another, I feel that is incumbent upon me to have answers.  Unfortunately, I am really, really out of touch not only with the very latest journal article of 2014, but also with the very latest journal article of 2004, 1994, 1984, and even 1974.  So my reply to his questions, which I shall give here, are offered with more than the usually cautionary caveats.  [I am reminded of a practice of the Vietnamese restaurants in Paris.  They put mouth-watering photographs of some of the dishes on their big, glossy menus, and then add in small letters the warning that the actual dish may not actually look like that!]

After an opening clearing of his throat, Andrew asks:  "An often mentioned metaphor or allegory for the appearance/reality cut is Plato's cave. So, why is it that the contradiction in Kant's understanding doesn't have a counterpart in the cave allegory? If there is no counterpart, what has to be added to get the analogous contradiction?"  The distinction between appearance and reality, on which Kant's entire philosophy is founded, does indeed have its origin in Plato's Allegory of the Cave, as Andrew says.  The difference is this:  Plato [in his guise as Socrates] argues that the philosopher, by a process of rational inquiry and critique, can ascend from the experience of appearances to a knowledge of reality, while still, of course, retaining an awareness of appearances and an understanding of their relation to reality.  Having achieved that higher [or deeper] knowledge, the philosopher can then act in the world in accordance with it, even though he will to be sure be scorned, as Socrates was, by those still trapped in the realm of appearance.  That is the allegorical meaning of the journey out of the cave into the sunlight.  Something like this notion is present in the teaching of the Inaugural Dissertation of 1770, although in that work Kant does not talk about principles of right action.  But as a consequence of his encounter with Humean scepticism, Kant gave up the position of the Dissertation, and instead embraced the view that our knowledge is forever confined to the realm of appearance, for all that we can formulate an empty idea of independent reality.  Hence for Kant, but not for Plato, there is a problem in making sense of the claim that the philosopher acts in the realm of appearance as one who has a knowledge of independent reality.  There is also the historically more complicated difficulty that the Greeks, Plato included, had no clearly formulated notion of laws of nature, and hence no philosophically usable idea of causal determinism.

Andrew goes on to make a second point that raises much more complicated questions.  Here is what he says:  "The relation between the noumenal ethical self and the phenomenal physical self is similar to the counterpart relation between objects in different possible worlds. Socrates in one world is F, but in another, he is not F. The conundrum is how to understand how it could be that it is the same Socrates that is and is not F. The Kantian conundrum is how to understand how it could be that Socrates is a causally caught up object and yet also a free agent. If there is an way to understand the modal case, isn't it clear that there should be a similar way to understand the Kantian case?"

I am now going imitate to Wiley Coyote and rush pell mell off the edge of a cliff, my legs pounding fiercely until I pause, look down, and discover that I am no longer on solid ground, at which point I will plunge to my destruction.  I am counting on the many serious philosophers who read this blog to weigh in and correct me.

For the first two millennia and a bit more of Western Philosophy, metaphysics took primacy of place over epistemology.  Questions about being, about what is, were thought of by virtually all the great philosophers as primary, questions about what we can know being considered as secondary.  Aristotle distinguishes in the Physics between things that are first in the order of knowing [such as the nature of substance] and things that are first in the order of knowing [such as sensory accidents.]  It is for this reason that he called the group of essays dealing with Being and associated matters "First Philosophy."  [It was only a medieval accident that these essays came to be called Metaphysics.  In the manuscript of Aristotle's works with which the Scholastics were working, those essays came after the Physics -- ta meta ta physika.]  His speculations about the processes of our knowing were consigned to a relatively secondary work, De Anima.

At the beginning of the seventeenth century, René Descartes dramatically reversed this age old prioritization with his proclamation that the one absolutely certain truth on which he was able to found his reasoning was cogito, I think.  The power of Descartes' arguments swept away two thousand years of belief in the priority  of the order of being over the order of knowing.  For the next two centuries, every great philosopher devoted his most intense speculations to the question, "What can I know?," and all of them followed Descartes in taking as their primary task an analysis of the cognitive powers and limits of the human mind.  It is for this reason that we find works with such titles as Essay Concerning the Human Understanding, Principles of Knowledge, A Treatise of Human Nature, and, of course, Critique of Pure Reason.

Even in the middle of the twentieth century, when I was an undergraduate, epistemology took pride of place over metaphysics, which in the analytic circles I frequented, was viewed with suspicion.  All of this changed shortly thereafter.  As a consequence of the work of Saul Kripke and a number of other philosophers, questions of being once more strode forward to the head of the class and took the place of questions about the cognitive capacities of the human mind.  [This may help to explain why Saul, then an undergraduate, stopped coming to my course on the Critique after a few weeks, apparently having decided that nothing was happening there that he needed to pay attention to.]  All of this was tricked out with some very fancy modal logic, and eventually gave us this talk about possible world semantics and such.

Which brings me to Andrew's question.  Why can we not make use of the modern discussions of possible worlds and so-called "counterpart theory" to resolve Kant's problem of making his talk about a causally determined phenomenal self and a morally free noumenal self compatible?  Because those modern discussions assume that one can talk about different possible worlds and their relation to one another without first determining what the subject of these discussions, the self doing the reasoning, can know about itself.  Take any text on possible world semantics and ask the simple question, "Who is doing the writing?"  Who is the self making those assertions?  How can that self arrive at the knowledge claimed in those assertions?  Kant grounds his entire philosophy on the proposition, "The 'I think' can be attached to every one of my representations," which is his version of Descartes' cogito. 

To put the point in a suitably Greek manner, there is no pou sto[a place 'where I may stand'] from which the modern possible worlds semanticist can contemplate both this world and other possible worlds equally so as to formulate propositions about them -- or at least, so Kant would argue, if he were to encounter this modern philosophical school.

Andrew concludes:  "This similar way to understand the Kantian case is adumbrated in your point about how the author of one narrative can't, or perhaps can, appear in another author's narrative. A narrative picks out a set of possible worlds. Suppose that the characters of our respective narratives pick out objects that are identical in the way that the Socrates who is F is identical with the Socrates is not F. To borrow a phrase, they are transworld characters. What is needed to resolve the contraction, in sum, is an understanding of how the same thing can have contradictory descriptions such as causally networked and free, but expressing the problem in terms of narrative already points the way to a resolution?"

Once again, note Andrew's precise wording.  "A narrative picks out a set of possible worlds."  But that is, strictly speaking, not true.  It is the narrator who picks out a possible world, and the narrator does this by creating the possible world by his or her words.  On this matter, I must refer anyone who has made it this far into this post to my essay, "Narrative Time" [which Andrew has clearly read], archived on and accessible through the link at the top of this page.

Well, I am looking down, and I have not started to fall yet, but that may just be because the Road Runner is not up on possible world semantics.  On to Timothy.


Sunday, August 24, 2014


I have finally got it clear in my mind, thanks to Wikipedia, that there are two actors names Fiennes -- Ralph and Joseph -- who are, as one might have thought, brothers.  So the star of Shakespeare in Love is not the same person as the star of Maid in Manhattan, which comforts me greatly, since they do not actually look alike.  They have the same last name, by the way, which is Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes.  I bet not all of you knew that!


1. JR, I would be very interested in taking a look at those papers.  Are they accessible on-line, at least for reading if not downloading?  I have access to journals on-line through Duke.

2.  Timothy, first help me out.  What is the "metaphysical argument for induction" that is now thought to be successful?  I am a little bit clueless.  My account of Kant's reply to Hume is in Kant's Theory of Mental Activity.  Indeed, most of the book is devoted to explicating that reply.  Once I know what I am talking about, I will craft a response.

As for how Kant can handle the first problem, my complete account is in The Autonomy of Reason:  A Commentary to the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals [don't you hate it when people keep referring you to their own books?  Like they think nothing else exists in the world!]

The brief story is this:  Kant is a strict determinist of the old school.  As Laplace famously wrote, "We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes."

Which means that it is for Kant [and for Laplace] impossible for the noumenal self to step into the flow of events and by an act of free will re-direct that flow, choosing, let us say, not to kill someone even though the forces of nature have determined from time immemorial that [the phenomenal appearance of] that noumenal self will commit murder. 

However, according to Kant in the First Critique, the mind is "the lawgiver to nature." The causal laws that it finds in nature it has, through its own synthesizing activity, placed there.   And time itself is merely one of the two forms in which things appear to us sensibly, not a characteristic of things in themselves.

Which means [this is the strictly consistent but incredible part] that the noumenal self can, when it synthesizes the entire world order, choose to synthesize it in such a manner that it [or its appearance in the realm of phenomena] obeys the Moral Law rather than violates it.

Which perhaps helps to explain why Kant is so much more interested in universal moral principles whose bindingness on us is knowable a priori and not so interested in individual in situ moral choices [although of course, since he wrote about everything, he wrote about that too.]


Here is my granddaughter, Athena Emily Wolff, in one of the Paris frocks I bought for her last month as a sixth birthday present.  Don't be misled by the charming smile.  She is a ferocious no-holds-barred Candyland and Go Fish player, and in extremis has been known to cheat!

Saturday, August 23, 2014


I made asparagus tonight for dinner [along with catfish and corn] because Susie likes it.  The asparagus naturally put me in mind of Babe Ruth [Google it], and that reminded me of his greatest one-liner.   One year, Ruth was paid more than the President of the United States, who, as it happened, was Calvin Coolidge.  When he was asked whether he thought that was appropriate, the Babe replied laconically, "I had a better year."

You had to love him!


Recently, this blog has been rather intensely focused on Marx's economic theories and his claim that there is a tendency in capitalist economies for the rate of profit to fall.  Today I should like to turn my attention in a quite different direction, to the philosophy of Immanuel Kant.  In the course of paying a personal tribute to the half century anniversary of the publication of my first book on  Kant's philosophy, I made some rather bold claims about what I accomplished in that book.  Emboldened by the absence of snarky responses in the Comments section [due perhaps to the fact that everyone was wrapped up in the Marx-debate], I shall today undertake in a very lengthy post to reprise what I think is my most important contribution to our understanding of Kant's theories, namely my argument that the deepest conclusions of Kant's theoretical philosophy -- his epistemology, as we would call it today -- undermine and contradict the core theses of his moral theory.  The argument, which I have made in several places not much noticed by the scholarly world, is, to the best of my knowledge, original with me and has neither been anticipated nor commented upon by any other Kant scholars.  This is going to take me a while, folks, so if Kant is not your thing, now would be a good time to catch up on your FreeCell or Spider Solitaire or watch those back episodes of House of Cards that somehow escaped you when they first came out.

Speaking broadly, Kant began his philosophical career committed to defending the fundamental claims of both science and ethics.  Science, for Kant, meant the Newtonian Physics of his day, with its universal causal laws governing the movements of bodies in space.  Ethics meant the rigorous demands of the particular form of Protestantism known as Pietism, which, as learned at his mother's knee, emphasized the absolute bindingness of the demands of reason and the importance of resisting the temptations of sensuous desire.  To these two tasks Kant brought the version of metaphysics that he had learned at university from his teacher, Martin Knutzen, who was a follower of Gottfried Leibniz.

There were many well-known difficulties and disputes in the so-called Rationalist school about the relation of physics and mathematics to the claims of metaphysics, and Kant's first serious effort to resolve those disputes was laid out by him in 1770 in the form of his Inaugural Dissertation, a formal presentation on the occasion of his elevation to the Chair of Logic and Metaphysics at the University of Königsberg.  In brief, Kant's idea was to assert that there were two cognitive sources of knowledge -- Reason and Sensation [or Intuition, as it was called then.]  Reason, he argued, gives us knowledge of things as they are in themselves -- knowledge that, roughly speaking, is the substance of Leibnizean metaphysics.  Sensation, or Intuition, on the other hand, gives us a somewhat less robust knowledge of things as they appear to us under the forms of Intuition, which are space and time, this latter knowledge comprising Euclidean Geometry and Newtonian Physics.

Almost immediately after presenting the Inaugural Dissertation, Kant became aware of the powerful sceptical arguments of David Hume, which, be it noted, were directed precisely against the causal inferences of Newtonian Physics, as well as against the sorts of arguments advanced by Leibnizean metaphysics.  Kant understood that Hume's arguments, if not completely rebutted, would destroy the defense he had erected of Newtonian Physics, and leave him with nothing but an utterly unacceptable scepticism.  Kant withdrew his hastily announced plans to publish a "Critique of Reason" and embarked on a feverish decade long rethinking of everything he had until then taken for granted, an effort that resulted, eleven years later, in the publication of the Critique of Pure Reason [1781.]

During this period of the most extraordinary philosophical effort, Kant had always in mind his desire to defend the fundamental claims of Ethics.  Indeed, during this same decade, Kant seems to have worked through, in his mind and in some cases on paper, a complete philosophical position that made a place not only for his defense of Newtonian Physics, Euclidean Geometry, and Ethical Theory, but also for radically new theories of aesthetics, of the concept of teleology, of law and politics, and even of religion.

The key to the entire enterprise was the distinction, taken over from Plato and incorporated already into the Inaugural Dissertation, between Appearance and Reality [or, to use the terms of art that appear in the Critique, between Phenomena and Noumena.]  In the course of working out a response to Humean scepticism, Kant gave up for all time the claim that we can have knowledge of independent reality, of things in themselves, to use the phrase he coined.  [Autobiographical aside.  The German for "thing in itself" is ding an sich.  When I bought a tiny motorcycle in Oxford in 1954 and drove it to Rome, I called it the "ding nicht an sich" because, I said, it was a phenomenal motorcycle.  Oh well.  I was only twenty.]

Thus, Kant rejected completely all the claims of Leibnizean metaphysics.  In doing so, he had clearly in mind his desire to defend the truths of morality, to resolve the apparently irresoluble conflict between the determinism of physics and the freed will presupposed by morality.  Classical physics says that everything happens according to immutable causal laws, and morality demands that we act freely.  Kant thought that by limiting our knowledge to the realm of Appearance, he had carved out a separate sphere, the sphere of things in themselves, in which Reason and Freedom could reign, in which the laws of morality held with absolute unconditional universality and necessity.

It is very important for everything I am now going to say to form some sense of the fever in which Kant must have worked for those eleven years, constantly trying to keep track of and find a place in his argument for the enormous range of subjects on which he was forging new doctrines.  [Biographical aside:  An early hagiographic account of Kant's life, published shortly after his death, describes him as much distressed in his last years because he could "no longer bring the full force of his intellectual powers to bear on his philosophical work."  When I read that, I thought of the monster in the old Frankenstein movie with sparks coming out of his head like an enormous Tesla Coil.]  To hold it all together, Kant devised a framework, or architectonic, as it has come to be called, with a place for everything, and everything in its place, all organized according to Kant's schema of the cognitive faculties of the mind:  Reason, Understanding, Imagination, Sensibility, Will, and so forth.  Indeed, so prolific and indefatigable a schematizer was he that he actually elaborate a number of not entirely compatible schemata -- at least three in the First Critique alone.  This framework, the architectonic, served to help Kant keep track of where he was in the elaboration of his arguments.

Now, if Kant had merely been one of the most important philosophers ever to live, the unfolding of this grand scheme, eventually set forth in a Three Critiques and a raft of other books, would have been enough to immortalize him.  Lord knows, the rest of us would be blissed out at the thought of producing something that is even a bare shadow of this grand scheme.  But Kant was even more than this.  He was capable, as he worked on the spelling out of his grand plan, of seizing on key elements of the argument and diving below the surface, following the train of his intuition as deep as it took him, no matter how he was forced by the logic of his investigation to change long held and much cherished philosophical beliefs.  I think of him at these moments as being like Gandalf the Grey, who followed the Balrog into the deepest reaches of the Caves of Moria and did battle there, emerging triumphant but changed, as Gandalf the White.

Just such a moment occurs in the Transcendental Deduction of the Categories in the First Critique.  As he dives deep into the analysis of the Concepts of Understanding, in an effort to combat Hume's scepticism and defend the knowledge claims of Newtonian Physics, Kant is guided by the belief, laid out in the structure of the Architectonic, that the Categories of Causation, Substance, and the rest are class concepts that have hypothetical, or as we would put it, problematic application to things in themselves.  This allows him to say that although they can never yield knowledge of things in themselves, since that knowledge requires Intuition, or Sensibility, which is constrained by the mind-imposed forms of Space and Time, nevertheless we can still form coherent meaningful propositions about the actions of things in themselves, among which are morally free persons.  Hence, he believes, he has made room for morality by limiting knowledge.

But in the depths of his investigation, Kant finds that Categories are in fact rules for the synthesis of a manifold [or manyness] of sensible intuitions.  And since the Categories are rules for the synthesis of a manifold, they cannot have even problematic application to something that is not a manifold of intuition at all, which is to say they cannot have even problematic application to things in themselves.  Only insofar as they are understood as rules for the synthesis of a manifold do the categories serve to undergird our knowledge of physics. 

In short, in the process of solving the problem of finding a response to Hume's scepticism,  Kant has in fact left no room at all for ethics, for the rational laws of morality, for the Categorical Imperative.


If there is anyone at all left reading this, let me give you some examples to illustrate the problem Kant has fashioned for himself.  First of all, Kant's pre-philosophical notion of the human condition is that it is a ceaseless struggle between duty and inclination, between what we know we ought to do and what we would like to do.  Not all philosophers see ethics this way, of course.  Plato and Aristotle see ethics as concerned with discovering how to live the good life, where the phrase "good life" is deliberately and intentionally ambiguous -- the good life is both a virtuous life, a life well lived, and a truly happy life.  The struggle between duty and inclination makes almost no appearance in Greek ethics.  Bentham and Mill thought the paradigmatic ethical problem was the "hard case," a situation in which competing and conflicting claims require us to figure out, taking everything into consideration, what will be best for all.  Their solution is to convert moral deliberation into a calculation, a summing up of pleasures and pains according to some general guidelines for weighting them and so forth.  Neither of these is Kant's idea of ethics.  Kant does not think that the central human problem is how to be happy, nor is he especially worried about hard cases.  He thinks that everyone -- including a peasant in North Prussia where Kant lived -- knows what is right and wrong:  Tell the truth, keep your promises, do unto others as you would have others do unto you.  When readers of his ethical writings protested that the Categorical Imperative was just a fancy version of the Golden Rule, Kant agreed, and said that since we all know what is right, you would hardly expect a moral theorist to tell you something new!

Now inclination is a form of desire, which, like everything else in the realm of appearance, is causally determined [by physical or psychological forces, it matters not which]. Our rational will, which struggles against inclination to do what is right, is a power of the noumenal self, the self as thing in itself, unconstrained by physical laws and hence free to submit itself to Reason, not to Inclination.  This endless struggle between the phenomenal self with its inclinations and the noumenal self with its reason, is the defining situation of the moral life.  Purely noumenal beings -- angels, let us say -- would experience the Moral Law in roughly the way that we experience the laws of mathematics, as rational principles that, as rational beings, they naturally and freely obey.  But because we humans are, in the immortal words of Alexander Pope, "placed on this isthmus of a middle state, being[s] darkly wise and rudely great," we, unlike angels, experience the rational principles of morality as imperatives.  Hence, the Moral Law appears to us, but not to them, as a Categorical Imperative.  [Imagine, if you can, a mathematician who finds herself tempted to draw conclusions not implied by her premises, and who must steel herself to obey modus ponens against the sinister forces of inclination.] 

But this familiar story of reason resisting temptation, which is quintessentially the Kantian problematic, if I may speak à la franҫaise, is absolutely impossible according to the deeper teaching of the First Critique.  Within the realm of appearance, there can be no such conflict between the noumenal will and phenomenal inclination, because any willing of the noumenal self must make its appearance in the space-time continuum of Phenomena as causally determined by what went before, just like everything else.

Let me say that again, because it may be difficult for those of you who have studied Kant's philosophy in the usual manner to appreciate just what has happened here.  The successful refutation of Humean scepticism achieved in the deepest passages of the First Critique rests on an interpretation of space, time, inclination, and will that makes it absolutely impossible for the phenomenologically observed torments of the devout Pietistic Protestant to be correctly interpreted as a struggle between reason and Inclination, between Freedom and Determinism.  In short, Kant's epistemology appears to imply that his moral theory of impossible.

I say "seems" because there is in fact an available resolution of this contradiction, which though incredible is genuinely logically possible.  [I am not going to lay it out here, because this is going on entirely too long, but if anyone is interested, I will explain in the next day or two.]  But alas, that is only the least of it.  There is another problem bequeathed by Kant's epistemology to his ethical theory that is a genuine crusher, and I turn to that now.

Everyone will agree, I take it, that for Kant telling the truth and keeping one's promises are clear, unambiguous examples of moral duties.  Now think about it.  To whom do I tell the truth?  Another person, presumably, another rational agent.  It is to that rational agent that I have a duty of truth-telling.  The same is true of keeping one's promises.  I make promises to other rational agents, and it is to them that I owe the duty to keep my promises.  Thus it follows trivially, according to Kant, that it is possible for me to encounter other rational agents in experience, to whom I owe a duty of telling the truth, should I choose to speak to them, and to whom I owe a duty of keeping my promises, should I make them.  To be sure, I do not have a duty to speak to everyone I encounter, or promiscuously to scatter promises about the landscape like rose petals at a wedding.  But should I speak to someone else, I am obligated to speak truthfully, and if I make a promise to someone else, I have a duty to keep it.

Suppose we take seriously the deeper doctrine of the First Critique.  According to that doctrine, the realm of Appearance, with its laws, is a construction of the synthesizing ego, which in its activity is guided by innate rules for the synthesis of a manifold of intuition, rules that Kant calls Categories of Understanding.  Now, one of the darkest and most difficult teachings of the Critique is that the self knows itself only as it appears to itself, not as it is in itself.  [That is, if I am not mistaken, virtually a direct quote.  I do not have the Critique in front of me.]  This self is the synthesizing self, the rational self, the noumenal self.  Indeed, it is the moral self.  All of these are the same self in its different functions or actions or manifestations.

In other words, the moral self that wills the Categorical Imperative appears to itself in the realm of experience as a conditioned, desirous, historical self possessed of inclinations and temptations.  But now perhaps you see the problem.  What is the self to whom I owe this duty of promise keeping and truth telling?  To whom am I making a promise when I promise?  The answer must be, it can only be, that this is a another noumenal self, another moral self, different from me, whom I am encountering in the realm of appearance.

But the realm of appearance is, so to speak, a story that I, the noumenal self, am telling to myself -- myself, the appearance of that noumenal self.  How on earth can another noumenal self show up in my realm of appearance?  If I may put it this way, how can another author show up in my story?

The deep arguments in the First Critique by which Kant manages to refute Humean scepticism are inherently and ungetoverably solipsistic in their implications.  This does not pose any crippling problems for Kant's understanding of Newton and Euclid, but it is fatal for his conception of the moral condition.

To the best of my knowledge [I hope readers who are more clued in to recent Kant scholarship will correct me if I am wrong], I am the only Kant scholar who has ever pointed this out.  How can that be?  Well, a simple answer is that almost no Kant scholars write full-scale commentaries on the First Critique and also write full-scale commentaries on the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals -- except for me.

Friday, August 22, 2014


As I lay in  bed in the middle of last night brooding about the horrific events in the Middle East and the militarization of civic order in Ferguson, Missouri, an idle thought occurred to me of a totally different nature.  Last year, I failed to commemorate a milestone of importance to me, if not to the rest of the world.  2013 was the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of my first, and arguably my best, book, Kant's Theory of Mental Activity.  This post will be devoted to a recollection of the circumstances that led to my writing that book, and the place it occupied in American scholarship at the time.  Those less fascinated then I by the minutiae of my past life are urged to surf the web for items of greater significance, which it should not be difficult to find.

In 1958, I began a three-year Instructorship in Philosophy and General Education at Harvard.  The terms of my contract called for me to tutor all of the undergraduate Philosophy majors while teaching in a large General Education course devoted to a blindingly fast survey of European history from Caesar to Napoleon.  A year later, in the Fall of 1959, I received a call from Donald Williams in the Philosophy Department.  Since the retirement of the great Clarence Irving Lewis in 1953, there had been no one to teach Philosophy 130, Kant's First Critique.  Williams wanted to know whether I would be willing to teach Phil 130.

I was stunned, and thrilled.  Philosophy 130 was an iconic course in the Department.  Lewis had taught it for decades, using an extraordinary system of weekly Summaries of the text that required endless hours of backbreaking work and conferred on even the dullest students a unique knowledge of the Critique.  Generations of graduate students believed that course to be the best they had ever taken.  I had taken it my senior year in the Spring of 1953, Lewis' last semester of teaching, and I had written my doctoral dissertation in part on the portion of the work known as The Transcendental Analytic.    Now, I would be teaching that same course, presumably in the same room, from the same podium that Lewis had occupied. 

I thought in a year I could prepare myself to do at least a creditable job.  I said that of course I would be proud to teach the course.  "Fine," replied Williams.  "Then it is settled.  You will teach Philosophy 130 next semester."

Next semester!  I went into panic overdrive, for the next six months working harder than I had ever worked before, and perhaps than I have ever worked since.   I eventually produced three ring binders of formal lecture notes on the Critique, which I used in my lectures that Spring and again a year later, when I taught the course for a second time.  [It was for the second iteration that a brilliant graduate student, Tom Nagel, enrolled, allowing me ever since to say, casually, whenever his name is mentioned, "Oh yes, he was a student of mine."]

I have several times remarked that for some obscure reason, every time I complete a lengthy piece of writing, I am seized by the fear that I shall never write anything again.  That fear had been lodged in the back of my mind since completing my doctoral dissertation in the Spring of 1957.  Therefore, in the summer of 1960, having made it successfully through Philosophy 130, I formed the plan of writing a Commentary on the central portion of the Critique, the Transcendental Analytic, drawing on my lecture notes.  This was, needless to say, a bold, even foolhardy, plan.  It was also not a plan particularly well suited to advance my career, although that thought never crossed my mind. 

At that time, the leading Kant scholar in America was Lewis White Beck, who spent his entire career, I believe, at Rochester.  There was no American philosopher then alive who had actually written a full-scale commentary on the First Critique.  The leading works in English were by two Scotsmen:  Norman Kemp Smith and H. J. Paton.  Kemp Smith was also the author of a splendid translation of the Critique into English that is still the best available.  His Commentary was not so much a book as an encyclopedia of invaluable detail, interpretation, and explication of particular passages.  Kemp Smith had embraced a hermeneutical story about the Critique known as the "patchwork theory of the Deduction," according to which the famously impenetrable and apparently internally contradictory central passage of the book, the chapter entitled "The Deduction of the Pure Concepts of Understanding," is actually a collage of passages written by Kant at different times between 1770 and 1781 and then hastily stitched together when, in Kant's words, he was "bringing the work to completion" in the months before its publication.  Kant was known to have been rather hypochondriacal, and apparently believed in 1781 that he might not live long enough to get all his theories on paper.  [Fortunately for all of us, he managed to live another twenty-one years, during which time he poured out the Second Critique, the Third Critique, the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, the Metaphysics of Morals, and many other immortal works.]

H. J. Paton had rejected the patchwork theory, which was the brainchild of the leading German Kant scholars [most notably Hans Vaihinger].  Paton produced a two volume work, Kant's Metaphysic of Experience, in which he undertook to expound the doctrines of the Critique as seamlessly consistent.  Paton was also the author of a very important commentary on Kant's moral philosophy.  For a long time, I was actually the only person other than Paton, writing in English, to produce book-length commentaries on the two major branches of Kant's philosophy.

I thought the patchwork theory as a piece of biography was wildly implausible, so purely on historical grounds I sided with Paton.  But at the same time I thought the doctrines of the Critique did not hang together logically, and in fact every point at which, on purely logical grounds, I perceived a difficulty in the text corresponded more or less precisely with Kemp Smith's identification of "passages written at different times."  Thus, I found Kemp Smith's commentary enormously helpful, and Paton's commentary virtually no use at all.

I wrote most of a first draft of my commentary in the summer of 1960, completing it the next summer.  Since I had written the entire thing in pen, longhand, I sent the pages to my mother, a phenomenal typist and proof reader, who transformed my scrawls into an impeccable typescript.  I submitted the book to Harvard University Press at the end of 1961, and they sent it off for review to Beck and Maurice Mandelbaum, both of whom recommended publication.  I signed a contract, read the copyedited manuscript, galley proofs, and page proofs, actually produced the index myself [never again!!], and in the Spring of 1963, it appeared:  Kant's Theory of Mental Activity, copyright Harvard University Press, 1963.

What did I actually accomplish in Kant's  Theory of Mental Activity?  What follows can be classified, to steal a title from Norman Mailer, as an advertisement for myself, so take it with a grain of salt.

Pretty much everyone agrees that Kant is the greatest philosopher since Aristotle, that his greatest work is the Critique of Pure Reason, that the most important section of the Critique is the Transcendental Analytic, and the heart and soul of the Analytic is the "Deduction of the Pure Concepts of Understanding," commonly referred to as the Transcendental Deduction [to distinguish it from the Metaphysical Deduction, but never mind, to channel Gilda Radner.]  However, strange though it is to say, nobody by 1963 had ever actually succeeded in stating flat out, step by step, from premises to conclusion,  the argument of the Deduction.  Lord knows, enough had been written about that passage, which only runs twenty-one pages in Kemp Smith's translation.  And everyone understood that Kant thought he had, in that chapter, "answered Hume," which is to say rebutted Hume's devastating sceptical critique of causal inference in Part iii of Volume I of A Treatise of Human Nature.  But if you asked a Kant scholar, innocently, "What is Kant's argument?  Can you just take me through it from his premises to his conclusion so that I can at least know what he is saying?"  you would get a long, complicated, deeply scholarly reply about alternative readings of central passages and apparent conflicts between the First and Second Edition versions and all.  No one could simply say:  "These are Kant's premises,  Here is each step of the argument.  And this is the conclusion.  And as you can see, the conclusion follows by the rules of logical inference from the premises."

That is what I did in Kant's Theory of Mental Activity.  What is more, I gave a full-scale detailed explication of the meaning of the central term in Kant's text, synthesis -- an explication that was, again for the first time, not metaphorical but literal.  I extracted that explication from the First Edition version of the Deduction and explained why Kant chose, nevertheless, to omit those passages from the Second Edition.

That is what I did back in 1963, and to the best of my knowledge, no one since has improved on my explication or demonstrated that it was wrong.

Scholarship moves on, and I suspect not too many students of Kant's philosophy read Kant's Theory of Mental Activity any more.  It has been superseded by the work of other scholars, and, what is more, it is fatally flawed as a piece of Kant scholarship:  it is clear and easy to read.

But I am inordinately proud of my first-born, and even though I am a year late, I hereby officially celebrated its half century.